Sally-Anne Bedford faces the pitfalls and positives that arise when a child decides to be vegan…
When my son Gabriel was three, he walked into nursery and announced to his teacher that he was a vegan. It was as much of a surprise to me as it was to his befuddled teacher, who looked to me for confirmation. I mumbled to her “Well OK, I think he’s vegan!” I expected it would last a day, or at least until he next saw a chocolate cake. That was eight years ago now and he is as strong in his conviction today as he was back then.
Gabriel had been vegetarian from birth and because I’m vegan, I knew he had heard the ‘V’ word many times, in restaurants, at parties and anywhere else that I needed to organise my own food. From a very young age he had been exposed to animal welfare and rights marches, including the first ever Walk For Farm Animals in New York City when he was two years old, followed by the New York Veggie Pride Parade. Everything he had been part of had been a celebration of being vegetarian and vegan, so it was all very positive for him, surrounded by other vegans dressed up and happy to be with like-minded people and eat great food. With this in mind, perhaps it’s no wonder that he would aspire to be part of this even at such a young age.
Like all parents I wanted my child to be kind and as compassionate to animals as he was to other humans. When he was a toddler we sat and watched many movies together that echoed how we felt, our favourite being Charlotte’s Web. It seemed normal to me for him to love Wilbur in the movie and then make that connection not to eat him or any other pig. Many may assume he has seen gruesome footage of slaughterhouses or been told about them, but he hadn’t and hasn’t to this day. He simply connected the dots between not wanting to hurt animals and not eating them or wearing their skins.
There were signs before the morning at nursery. I had once tried to give him a boiled egg when he was about two years old, but he refused to eat it, and although he ate a little cheese, he never drank cow’s milk, preferring soya drinks instead. Looking back, he was naturally rejecting animal products before he even knew what his diet was. I understood this as I had also struggled with the same foods as a child, dreading the school milk monitor and feeling squeamish about the translucent gloop of a raw egg.
Gabriel was very lucky in the early years, because if friends did have concerns about his diet it was never voiced and he was brilliantly catered for at parties and play dates. In cases where I knew he’d struggle I would always offer to bring something for him. At end of term parties and events it was common for a kind mum to have thought about him and he would come out beaming, clutching a Moo Free bar or a bag of Good Stuff Sweets, and I was always hugely appreciative of that.
The lines can be a bit blurry and when you have a vegan child you constantly have to make decisions as to what is OK and what is not when it comes to days out. Although he doesn’t go to zoos, he does go to sanctuaries such as The Monkey Sanctuary in Looe and he has been lucky enough, through my work, to visit Save The Chimps in Florida, which is not open to the public. But he will never go to SeaWorld (and after seeing Blackfish he has no problem with that!) or look at unhappy bears pacing back and forth on concrete. He accepts that if he never gets to see any of these animals as a result, then so be it. Perhaps it will inspire him to study something that takes him to far flung places to help animals in their own habitat.
Eat your greens
As much as I’d love to tell you he sips on wheatgrass juice, begs for seaweed sprinkled salad and goes nuts for lentil stew, he doesn’t! I’m like any parent watching his diet and trying to squeeze as much green veg and vitamins into him as possible. His favourite foods are pizza, vegan macaroni cheese and French fries!
Gabriel also loves pasta with pesto, so it’s a great recipe for sneaking in greens. I blend these ingredients and, because of the basil, he never detects the spinach! 55g (2oz) fresh basil leaves, 30g (1oz) baby spinach leaves, 2 garlic cloves, 30g (1oz) pine nuts, 170ml (6fl oz) extra-virgin olive oil (divided), sea salt to taste, 2 tbsp nutritional yeast fortified with B12 (optional). Finely chopped baby spinach and kale can also be added to spaghetti bolognese, chilli and taco mix. Gabriel also takes a daily vegan multi-vitamin containing B12.
The circus came to town
When Gabriel was four, the Bobby Roberts Circus came on the evening news when a worker was filmed abusing Annie the elephant. There was a public outcry and a renewed call for the ban of wild animals in the circus. Gabriel said he thought it was mean, so I asked him if he’d like to do something to help her, which he was eager to do. A couple of days later we got in the car with home-made banners and made our way to Knutsford, Cheshire, where the circus had pitched up. I had dressed Gabriel as a little clown with a tear on his face and he looked very cute! I knew he’d get a few oooh’s and aaah’s, but what I didn’t know was that he’d become the focus for the demonstration. Photographers from the national newspapers swooped on him and he appeared in the national and international press the next day, making it all the way to the Canadian Daily Post.
Circus supporters were incensed that a child had been ‘used’ in such a way. It was all over social media that I was a bad parent who had dragged my poor child to the protest and ‘made’ him not like the circus. While I didn’t force him in any way, I agreed that of course it was because of me he was interested and able to stand up for suffering animals. Just like a child follows his parent’s favourite football team or religion, Gabriel was taking an interest in animal welfare, but for me that will always be a positive thing. As a result of that protest he went on to campaign for CAPS (Captive Animal Protection Society) and even designed a tote bag for them! Achievements he is incredibly proud of.
Over the last few years I have spoken to Gabriel about that day in nursery and assured him that if he decides he would rather be vegetarian, then it’s up to him. He is resolute that he wants to always be vegan. I don’t know what he will decide when he is older, but I do know he’s already looking for the domain name for his vegan bakery, and I believe that no matter what he decides to do with the rest of his life, animals will always be at the forefront.
Top tips for parents of Vegan children:
- Get vegan smart – You don’t have to explain to anybody where your child gets his or her protein from, but it’s good to know! Read widely and be inspired by the many athletes that thrive on a vegan diet. (Brendan Brazier, Robert Cheeke and Venus Williams to name but a few.)
- Try and support your child – Even if it’s alien to you, there’s nothing worse than being forced to eat meat and animal products when your head and heart are telling you not to. Together, you and your child will find all kinds of exciting and tasty new recipes and foods to try.
- Let your child be a testimony for the lifestyle – Don’t get into arguments with people about it. You don’t ask how their children get their vitamins, so they do not have the right to grill you about it either. Just eat well and the health of your child will be example enough.
- Treats – Yes there are plenty of fruit and veggies, but sometimes cake and ice cream are a must! Vegan bakeries are popping up all over the internet and it can be delivered right to your doorstep. To get you started try out yumbles.com, amazon.co.uk, vegantown.co.uk and veganstore.co.uk
- Speak to your child’s school about lunches – Take a list of suggestions that are simple to provide (pasta, rice dishes and so on) and, if all else fails, a packed lunch should be an option. Above all, be proud that your child is living a life of compassion, respect and love.
Sally-Anne is a writer and animal artist who has written for international, national and local print and digital publications. A vegetarian since the age of 12 and vegan since 2005, her passion is animals and, in particular, dogs, who frequently pop up in her pet portraits. She shares her life with four dogs, five pigs and a hamster called Ricardo. Follow Sally-Anne on: Instagram: @sallyannebedford, Facebook: @gretalovesmabel and Twitter: @gretalovesm. www.gretalovesmabel.com.